“Who are You Working For?”

Nov 8, 2013 by     No Comments    Posted under: Expressions, Opinions

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Asim Shaikh. I’m calling from XY Chemicals. Can you please check and let me know if you have received our fax regarding the visit of certain Chinese businessmen to Karachi this week?”

(a slight pause)

“No sir,” the shrill voice from the other side said. “We have not received any fax from you, as yet.”

“Why? How is this possible? This is the sixth time I’m faxing you the details. Can you please check again and let me know? I’ll wait.” The frustration of the man on the other side was apparent in his voice.

“Please hold.”

The annoying, repetitive electronic music reserved solely for calls on hold blasted from the telephone speaker, making him quickly take the phone slightly away from his ear. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, the woman came back on the line.

“Hello? Yes, sir I am very sorry for the inconvenience – but our fax machine is out of order, which is why we have not been able to receive your documents.”

“What?!” he took a deep breath to calm himself before speaking again, deliberately slowly. “Okay. Listen, it’s fine. How about you give me your email address? I’ll just scan the letter and email it to your consulate. That way, you’ll still get the official documents and the work can be done on time, too.”

“I’m sorry sir,” came the apologetic reply. “We do not have emails here.”

“How can you not have emails?” the man sounded stunned. “The world has moved on – technology is everywhere. You do not have email?”

“No sir. I am truly sorry. If you could just fax us again – ”

“But you do not have fax. Didn’t you just say so? Fine. I’ll come myself and give you the documents. Is that alright? Will that work?”

“No sir. I am truly sorry. But we do not allow anybody to come here… security reasons, you understand.”

“No I do not understand! You do not get a fax that is sent to you continuously for three days on end – and then you tell me it is not working. I ask you for your official email address so that I can scan the documents and give them to you – and you tell me you don’t have an email ID. How can you not have one? The entire world is based on technology – major businesses are running solely online. And you, representing an entire country, do not have an email address? How is that possible?! And then you can’t even meet with me? Do you not understand how important this is? The industry in Pakistan is failing – it’s dying! I’m trying to build business here, and instead of helping me – like you should – you’re creating one obstacle out of another. What do you want me to do?!”

“Sir, if you could keep faxing us… as soon as we receive it we shall give you the go-ahead. As soon as our fax machine gets fixed we shall receive it and get the work done from our end.”

“Okay, how soon do you think you can get it fixed?”

“Umm… I don’t know sir. I’m truly very sorry for the inconvenience. But if you could simply just keep faxing it to us, whenever it gets fixed we’ll get the work done…”

“What do you mean, whenever? Will it be fixed in a week? A year? Or five? How can you all be so callous and irresponsible? I’ve had it with you all! You gave me the number of the consulate in China – the recording is completely in Chinese! Why not Urdu? Is that not your language? You’re representing Pakistan in China there – why can’t you put Urdu and English recordings as well? So that people besides the Chinese can contact you!”

“Sir – ”

“I don’t know what you people want, but you have effectively reinforced a negative image of our country – both with me and internationally. Sometimes I truly wonder whether you are working for Pakistan or some other country. Call me when you get your priorities right!”

 * * *

“Bashir!” the shrill voice of Bibi Maa could be heard across the street as she screamed at her son from the bottom of the spiraling steel steps that led to his room at the top. “When are you coming? Do you not feel like working today?”

“Coming, Maa!” her son’s voice came down, slightly muffled.

“Hurry up! We have to open the store. The customers are lining up!”

Bibi Maa shuffled away to the kitchen, muttering under her breath.

She could not understand why her son was suddenly not willing to take any responsibility for the family. Did he not see that the store was the only way to feed the little ones properly?

She gazed adoringly at the two toddlers sleeping in their cot, before turning back to the stove.

Some fifteen minutes later, Bashir’s footsteps sounded behind her as he slowly descended the rickety stairway and entered the kitchen. With a plate loaded with breakfast in one hand, Bibi Ma turned around and gasped at the sight that met her eyes.

Her son’s face was disheveled, his hair wild about his face and his clothes were in disarray. The sunken eyes that stared back from atop the hollows of his cheekbones were bleary and bloodshot, as though he had not slept in a week.

Which, she now realized, he probably had not.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked him sternly, trying to keep the worry out of her voice as she placed the plate in front of him on the small table. “Why are you suddenly so blasé about the business all of a sudden? The land lord has already come twice in three days. We need the roof over our heads, Bashir!”

“I know, Ma! Don’t start all over again.” Bashir rubbed his hands over his unshaven face, sounding washed out. “Listen, can we talk?”

 Bibi Ma’s face puckered with worry and she quickly sat down next to him, wiping her hands on her filthy apron. “What is it?”

“Look, Ma. I know you’re worried about the house and the kids, but don’t worry I’ll handle everything. I’m thinking of moving to Clifton to find a job. I could become a driver..”

“What! And leave us here? Absolutely not! What is wrong with earning an honest living at the store?”

“Ma, listen to me,” Bashir took her hand in his and rubbed it lightly. “I can’t go back. I can’t!”

His eyes pleaded with her to understand his plight, and suddenly Bibi Ma was confused and afraid. Had something happened? Why hadn’t he told her?

“Look, Ma. I have to leave this place. We will never survive if I try working here. Ghulam Bhai’s boys, they come to the store every day. They threaten the customers, they threaten to destroy the store and pick up the kids – ”

She gasped in fear and suddenly, she was trembling thinking of the consequences.

“No, Bashir! You can’t let them do that! You can’t. Give them what they want! They will leave.”

“No, Ma.” Bashir said gently, feeling his heart squeeze in pain. “The police are no help. I contacted them, they want more than Ghulam Bhai’s boys to help protect us. I do not have anything. I am only a small store keeper. Nobody can help us, Ma. Nobody will stand a chance against them – and I don’t want to put anybody in danger for our sake. It’s okay!”

He hugged her tightly when Bibi Ma started to cry, careful not to crush her hurting old bones.

“I will come every other weekend, and I will send you money. Save as much as you can, and then when we have enough, we will leave, Ma. Take the girls and leave. You can come stay with me when I have a better place. It is safer there. I have talked to Sultan, he will take care of you. Nobody will be able to come in the house without him knowing, I promise! We will be fine!”

And suddenly, he couldn’t stop repeating the words, “we will be fine!”

He had to say them to calm Bibi Ma down, otherwise her blood pressure would shoot up and they would all be in for it. But as he rocked his mother back and forth, chanting the words, for a second it almost felt as though he was convincing himself.

 *

Such are the woes of the average industrialist trying to make a living in Pakistan. Most are here solely because the country and their heritage pulls at their heartstrings; they can leave for greener pastures in the blink of an eye should they ever wish to do so.

But their love for their country and their blind faith that one day, everything will be different keeps them going. They handle the frustrations thrown at them from all sides, bravely gritting their eat and striving on.

Yet, how much longer can this go on?

In the past, whenever I asked businessmen friends of mine about how they feel running their businesses in Pakistan, I would get a montage of replies. Some would be enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of the country, while others would be downright negative about how long the ship can stay afloat. Recently, however, I have noticed a growing trend among the businessmen community to relate one another with whatever horrific experience they have had. It seems like they are trying to out do each other; the one with the most hair-raising story being the winner.

There was a time when Pakistan was not like this; when the perspective of most Pakistanis was so positive it bordered on unrealistic. Yet, there was hope. Today, we rapidly see that characteristic diminishing.

“There is fear in the hearts of businessmen, today,” said one angry trader who preferred to remain anonymous. “We can’t go to and from work without having about ten panic attacks. We could be shot on the road by target killers, or one of our family members could be hurt by gangs demanding bhatta. There is no help from the government. Business is suffering. Where do we go?”

When asked what he was planning to do for his protection, he replied, “The new arms law gave us hope. If we can protect ourselves, we won’t have to worry about the many police mobiles that are actually personal guards for other people and not for us.”

Unfortunately, due to the ingrained red tape in the country’s structure, the arms law has yet to be implemented fully. Every time a businessman tries to get work done he is met with a solid wall of bureaucracy. Whether it is everyday operations or important industry related activity; there is always a convoluted way of going about it.

“I had to import certain raw materials for production,” said Bashir, an industrialist with factories in major cities across Pakistan.

“We make export quality goods and in order to keep top of the line, we have to import certain raw materials from abroad. Recently, I had a shipment that came into Karachi port. It stayed there for over two weeks because I was abroad and my Product Manager refused to pay the “fee” for unloading. If I had not returned in time, and made a few calls, that product would have been destroyed. These people do not realize how costly they make it for us to do business in Pakistan. I have interests in Dubai and UK as well; yet we do not go through any problems in those countries. But in our own country, I am so sad to say that life for the average businessman is not always pleasant. It is tough; we fight everyday for even the smallest of things. It is not easy.”

Yet, the brave and determined plough on; regardless of the obstacles that are erected time and again in their paths. Some have given up all together and moved their families and businesses into neighboring Bangladesh. Ironic, is it not, that a few years back West Pakistan would laugh at the thought of East Pakistan being able to survive on its own – and today, it is us floundering in the dust of both our fast paced neighbors, who have long since disappeared from view.

A businessman who just came from a visit to Jakarta says, “It is easier there. I’m not saying they don’t have their share of problems; it is just a lot less than what we have here.”

When asked whether he was planning on packing up his business interests in Pakistan and shifting abroad, he vehemently denied any such desire. “Yes, we are plunged in darkness right now; but that does not mean that I leave my country. If you do not have electricity in your house – do you pack up and move into your neighbor’s? No. You light a candle in your own home, don’t you? Well, we’re going to try. We owe this country that much, at least.”

Given the way our industry is stumbling forwards taking it one step at a time, I feel it behooves the government to take a stand in the interest of Pakistan’s remaining businesses. On the one side, they may be declaring their intentions of clearing all obstacles out of the way and make a clear path toward a brighter future, but if they do not deal with the embedded red tape within their own structure first, one cannot expect others to follow suit. For it is always the leader who shows the way to betterment; the people do naught but follow.

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